Sigmund Freud Essay

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Sigmund Freud’s pioneering focus on unconscious motives arising from infant experiences offers a distinctive approach to understanding human motives. His focus on how the super-ego internalizes societal demands offered a way of understanding how social norms affect individuals. His approach has had an enduring influence in sociology, shaping important research especially in gender, family, and religion.

Freud was born to a middle-class Jewish family in Moravia. Freud, who had two half-brothers from his father’s previous marriage, was the favored first son of his mother, to whom he was strongly attracted. Freud recalled strong jealousies toward his younger brothers and contempt for his father, who was two decades older than his mother and whom Freud perceived to be intellectually weak and unable to confront anti-Semitism. Freud spent most of his life in Vienna, where his family moved when he was four. After studying medicine, philosophy, and science at university, he worked as a physician studying neurology. In the late nineteenth century he rejected the medical emphasis on chemical imbalances as the cause of hysteria, focusing instead on how mental processes cause physical problems. For the rest of his life, he used his psychoanalytic work with patients to develop a theory of the mind that is his lasting contribution.

Freud emphasized that the motives that impel action are unconscious. Behind every sociological theory rests some understanding of human motives. Symbolic interactionists focus on how meanings drive action; rational-choice theorists focus on individuals’ conscious weighing of costs and benefits; and ethnomethodologists see action as driven by habit and taken-for-granted knowledge. Freud insisted, based on his psychoanalytic work with his patients, that unconscious motives drive human action. He discovered the unconscious through his analysis of dreams, mental illness, jokes, and slips of the tongue. His psychoanalytic work suggested that unconscious desires arise from childhood relations with parents For Freud, the self so represses infantile and childhood desires that they cannot enter the self’s consciousness. Yet they nonetheless drive adults’ actions.

Freud’s account of psychic structure recognizes how cultural norms root themselves in the human psyche. For Freud, the ”id” or ”it” represents the unconscious drives that demand satisfaction. The psychic structure’s ”super-ego” or ”over-I” represents the internalization of cultural norms espoused by parents. The super-ego is an ego-ideal in which part of the psyche (unconsciously) takes on the parents’ admonishing role, punishing other parts of the self. For Freud, the ”ego” is the ”I” which mediates between the demands of id, super-ego, and external reality. One of Freud’s fundamental contributions to sociology is the recognition that the psyche itself internalizes social demands. The super-ego, he says, is the ”special agency” in which ”parental influence is prolonged” (Freud 1969: 3).

Freud applied his psychoanalytic insights to understanding social phenomena. In considering religion, he argued that ”in all believers . . . the motives impelling them to religious practices are unknown or are replaced in consciousness by others which are advanced in their stead” (Freud 1963: 22). For Freud, it is the ”infant’s helplessness and the longing for the father aroused by it” that is the ultimate source of ”religious needs” (p. 19). This focus on unconscious motives that derive from childhood experience is Freud’s fundamental contribution to sociology, which continues to have influence in fields as diverse as the sociology of religion, the sociology of gender, and the sociology of family.


  1. Freud, S. (1963) [1907] Obsessive acts and religious practices. In: Rieff, P. (ed.), Character and Culture. Collier, New York, pp. 17—26.
  2. Freud, S. (1969) [1940] Outline of Psychoanalysis, trans. J. Strachey. Norton, New York.

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